The Rays and Mariners are teams in two different places right now. With a poor farm system and aging core, the Mariners are considering a rebuild. The Rays, on the other hand, are trying to improve upon a promising 90-win season, which they will need to do to try to get anywhere in the ultra competitive AL. I am not sure that trading away their best leadoff hitter in Mallex Smith in exchange for Mike Zunino is going to get that done. The trade also includes Guillermo Heredia and Michael Plassmeyer going to Tampa Bay, while Jake Fraley goes to Seattle.
Plassmeyer and Fraley are throw-ins who are still in A-ball. Heredia is a replacement level fourth outfielder. He has good contact skills, but he can’t hit for power, nor does he have any defensive value. This trade is really Zunino for Smith.
Mariners fans were frustrated by Zunino for years leading up to the 2017 season. He hit only .193/.252/.353 from 2031-2015 and struck out a ton. He seemed to finally be putting it together in 2016, hitting .207/.318/.470 while walking about 11 percent of the time, but he played in only 55 games. He did even better in 2017, with a line of .251/.331/.509, but that came with a .355 BABIP.
Zunino predictably regressed in 2018, more so than some might have expected. He hit .201/.259/.410. A .410 SLG and 20 HR from a catcher is pretty good, but it cost too many outs. Worse yet, his walk rate plummeted below six percent. A .259 OBP is just too much to overcome even for a good defensive catcher who can hit for power.
Baseball Prospectus’s WARP factors in pitch-framing, and even then Zunino came in at just 1.3 WARP. It’s funny because he was basically equal in value to the departing Wilson Ramos, who was pretty much a bat-first catcher. If Zunino can improve his offense at all, and his track record says that is possible, he will be an upgrade over Ramos. He is certainly an upgrade over whomever the Rays were going to trudge out there without him. It is worth noting that Zunino suffered an oblique injury right before the season started. That may have affected his offense.
While Zunino fills a need for the Rays, trading away Mallex Smith makes this move look like a net negative. He was good in 2018, much better than he was over the two previous seasons. He hit .296/.367/.406 with 40 stolen bases against 12 times caught. He will never win any Gold Gloves, but he is a good defensive outfielder. All of that added up to a 3.5 WAR season. While his power is quite poor for anyone, let alone an outfielder, he is basically the perfect lead-off hitter. He has great contact rates, gets on base a lot, and is extremely fast.
Austin Meadows will likely take over full time for Smith in right field, assuming Tommy Pham stays in left. He had a nice rookie season, hitting .287/.325/.461. Unless Meadows improves the Rays will be trading OBP for power, which is generally not something you want to do, but the Rays did a good job getting on base last season. Their .333 OBP tied with the Cubs and Dodgers for the third-best in the majors. However, that is a poor recipe for a lead-off hitter, meaning that the Rays will have to look to someone else to fill that role. Also, Meadows will be a clear downgrade defensively and on the basepaths over Smith. With a .336 BABIP and poor track record of health in the minors, the Rays are really taking a gamble by replacing Smith with Meadows.
The Mariners received a player who can actually play center field instead of forcing Dee Gordon there. Even if Smith’s offense regresses, which is likely, this move is potentially an upgrade for the team. I say potentially because we don’t know who is going to play catcher for the Mariners. Usually a team trades from depth, but this was not one of those cases. I am sure they would love to get J.T. Realmuto, but they do not have the assets to acquire him. After trading away Zunino, they really do not have the assets to acquire anyone. The good news is that there are viable options on the free agent market. Brian McCann and Yasmani Grandal are available. They could even sign former Rays catcher Wilson Ramos!
Assuming they get someone decent to play catcher, I like this deal better for the Mariners, who appear to have no intention of rebuilding just yet. That is not to say that there is no argument that the Rays came out on top. One could argue that Zunino’s offensive struggles last year where the result of injury, and that Smith is going to regress more than I expect him to. That is certainly a reasonable argument to make, and that would tip the scales in favor of the Rays.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.